Rewarding Experience Providing Dental Relief in the Pacific

17 May 2018

The prospects of a rewarding job with plenty of variety prompted then-teenager Rebekah Salt, of Kaiapoi, to join the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in 2010 as a dental assistant.

Now a qualified dental hygienist, Lance Corporal Salt has just returned from a challenging mission providing dental relief in Vanuatu.

She took part in Exercise Tropic Major, a military exercise that comprised a humanitarian medical and dental component.

During the exercise, a team of 10 from the Royal New Zealand Dental Corps was based at Vaemali Medical Centre, on a hilltop on Epi Island. In five days the team helped more than 300 people and performed 650 dental procedures.

The dentists and hygienists worked from 7.30am to 5pm each day in a clinic with generators providing power, relying on headlamps for consistent light. Some villagers walked for hours to see them.

After finishing at Rangiora High School Lance Corporal Salt was keen to leave home, and wanted a job with a difference.

“Originally, I was looking at becoming a medic, and I went to the recruiting office in Christchurch,” she said.

“I was told if I wanted to look at dental they could start me quickly. Sometimes there’s a lot of wait time to get in, so it worked out perfectly for me.”

After basic training she trained as a dental assistant, then the New Zealand Army paid for her three-year degree course at Otago University to become a dental hygienist. She is also qualified as a dental therapist, meaning she can do dentistry on patients up to the age of 18.

It felt like she had been set up for life, she said.

“Because I joined the military at a young age, I saw my peer group were still looking at what they wanted to do in their lives.

“This was a great opportunity for me, something that is not like a day-to-day job, nine to five. This is what I love about the military – lots of variety.”

Tropic Major was her second overseas deployment, and the numbers they dealt with was challenging.

“I hadn’t been exposed to this sort of work before. With the soldiers I see annually, their health is good.

“And time management was essential, because of the numbers of people who wanted help.”

The experience was rewarding, she said.

“We made a big difference to these people, and they could see the change as well."

This page was last reviewed on 7 February 2019.